Update 10 December 2014
I’ve today updated sections of this page in red text ‘sticky plasters’ to reflect new channels and distribution options that have come about since I first posted here. In due course I shall rewrite this page to improve the flow – in the meantime please bear with any repetition and odd sequencing. I shall be adding more updates to do with Ingram Spark in due course.
Low cost print-on-demand companies to consider if you’re going to do all of the legwork yourself include:
- CreateSpace (owned by Amazon.com and based in the USA)
- Lightning Source (based in the USA, UK and Australia)
- Ingram Spark (a sister operation to Lightning Source – launched July 2013)
- Blurb (best for photographic/picture books)
I’ve ended up combining CreateSpace and Lightning Source UK. But for new self-publishers I think that CreateSpace – combined with Ingram Spark is likely to be the best option. Read on to find out more – especially (1) why it’s important to understand about ISBNs and (2) why opting for CS is still fantastic and highly recommended but why choosing their Extended Distribution Channel may not be a good idea.
I found CreateSpace a great place to start my self-publishing journey for a number of reasons – though you will see later that, being UK-based, I have split my distribution between CreateSpace and Lightning Source.
Reasons to consider CreateSpace:
- Next to no set-up costs – more on this below.
- Your book is made available on Amazon.com for free. In return Amazon deducts 40% of the retail price, giving you a 60% royalty. (You are also provided with your own CreateSpace ‘e-store’ space where your sales earn 80% royalties – though, in my view, selling this way doesn’t have the marketing ‘clout’ of Amazon.)
- It will also appear on Amazon.co.uk and in other Amazon stores in Europe. Orders from here will be printed in the UK or Europe – this was introduced in May 2012 – check the royalty arrangements here.
- CreateSpace provides free Word templates for formatting your book’s interior. The templates come in a wide range of sizes to match the most common print book sizes.
- In addition they offer step-by-step instructions on how to convert your formatted file to PDF ready for (free) upload. These final PDF upload documents also work for Lightning Source – or they did for me, at least.
- They also offer a free interior reviewer tool where you can upload and check your Word or PDF interior file before you order your hard copy review (I’ve not used this – it was only introduced in Nov/Dec 2011 from what I can see – you can check out this YouTube video of the interior reviewer in action)
- CreateSpace also offers easy-to-use free book cover design software ‘Cover Creator’ which you can use to design a print-ready cover for your book. The software, which is housed on CreateSpace’s site, allows you to upload your cover text and images into pre-designed templates and play around with text and background colours to suit you needs. Once you have your first prototype, you can then preview alternate designs at a click of a button. (The templates come with images that you can use if you wish, but it’s likely that you’ll want to replace these with your own.) I’ve not used these templates for my own book covers – but they are worth knowing about because they are free! They can also give you ideas for briefing an illustrator on a design. NB I personally don’t recommend designing your own cover – let a professional do it. But the templates are worth knowing about.
- If you decide not to use Cover Creator (see above) you can download free cover templates that will ensure that your cover file for upload is sized correctly for your book size /format and page count
- CreateSpace will provide you with a free ISBN if you wish or a custom ISBN for $10. Personally I would not recommend using these routes if you want to get your books into bricks and mortar stores because book sellers do not look on Amazon kindly and will see that your book is published and distributed by CS. In addition if you wanted to self-publish the same title through another site you would have to use a different ISBN. Rather I would recommend buying your own ISBN from Bowker in the USA or Nielsen in the UK. Go to my section on ISBNs to find links to these organisations. Or read more about your different ISBN choices on CS here.
- CreateSpace has an easy-to-use Royalty Calculator enabling you to play around with different retail prices and estimate what you will earn based on the different distribution channels you opt for and depending on your trim size and number of pages etc – more on these below. (More on how your final royalty is worked out here.)
- It also has the most fantastic Community Forum where you can get help on all aspects of formatting files, understanding ISBNs or distribution channels and so on – it’s also a great place to meet people doing the same thing as you are! And a great place to find some real gems of folk who will help you out with last minute formatting issues at a very reasonable costs. For more on this see the Word formatting section.
- It offers a free Preview Gallery where you can get feedback on your book from other CreateSpace members or friends/family.
- There is no charge if you need to make proofing corrections and re-upload your file, provided the page count stays the same.
- It has free member email support (requires log in) and they usually reply within one working day – you can fire anything at them from general to specific and they will answer. They also offer telephone support for international customers – as far as I know this is at standard international rates. Both times I called they were able to resolve my query very quickly.
- Your financial outlay is minimal – (a) you get free listing on Amazon.com and on Amazon Europe (includes UK) if you opt for this channel, and in your own Createspace ‘e-store’ – your only outlay is the cost to order your initial proof copy (in my case this was $2.31 + postage to the UK)* (b) you also have the option (now free) to select to wider distribution channels beyond Amazon.com and the CreateSpace e-store – albeit it at much lower royalty rates : see the section below on Extended Distribution Channel. I would not recommend choosing Amazon’s Extended Distribution Channel if you want to have the chance of persuading bricks and mortar stores to stock or be prepared to order your book – I talk about this more below.
In short, if you’re truly planning to go ‘DIY’, CreateSpace is a great place to learn the ropes of preparing digital files for print-on-demand and to get your books on to Amazon.com. It’s also a great place to meet other authors doing the same as you. (For info – if you can afford it – CreateSpace also offers a full professional publishing service – from formatting all of your files to upload and listing and marketing of your book. However I’d be wary of shelling out huge sums at this stage. Come and join the Alliance of Independent Authors to find out why. )
Extended Distribution Channel: pros and cons
Authors who sign up for the CreateSpace Pro Plan (see above) can opt to have their books distributed via Createspace’s ‘Extended Distribution Channel’ (EDC).
There’s a full explanation of the EDC here, but in brief, it means your book will be made available to the large US wholesalers and in turn included on data feeds that go out to the main US bookstores and US online retailers (beyond Amazon) – I believe they eventually also go beyond this globally though the page on CS doesn’t explicitly say so.
There are two reasons why I don’t use this channel and why you need to take heed before doing so:
1/ Books you sell this way will earn you much lower royalties than your non-EDC sales because Amazon deducts a 60% sales channel percentage from your list price compared with 40% deducted from your automatic free listing on Amazon.com (and versus 20% deducted for book listed in the CreateSpace e-store).
2/ If you choose this channel, although your book will find its way on to the extended data feeds that get sent out by Ingram (which bookshops see on their systems), bricks and mortar booksellers will see that any orders they place will be fulfilled by Createspace and may be be unwilling to order your book in due to the Amazon connection.
I therefore recommend using CreateSpace for distribution to Amazon.com and Amazon EU/UK and then either Lightning Source or Ingram Spark for everything else if you want bookshops to be receptive to ordering your title. And by not opting for CS’s Expanded Distribution Channel you can use the same ISBN for your book with Lightning Source or Ingram Spark. If you were to use CS’s expanded distribution and then decided you wanted to use LS or IS you would need to use a new ISBN for LS or IS, which would create two records for your book and be very confusing.
For the record, at the moment [Dec 2014] I don’t use CS’s Amazon EU/UK channel for The Secret Lake and Eeek! because that channel didn’t exist when I brought those books out. Lightning Source supplies those two books to Amazon UK at the moment. However I will shortly be turning that channel on via CS because periodically my books show as out of stock on Amazon UK. (I am already using both Amazon.com and the Amazon EU channel for Henry Haynes and The Great Escape and never have stock issues showing.).
NB When reading below, please bear in mind that I was an early adopter of self-publishing here in the UK and since that time Lightning Source has created the Ingram Spark brand, which for most is, I think, the simplest route to take alongside Createspace. LS is really aimed at publishing houses rather than individual authors and you will find more hand-holding using Ingram Spark – and end up with the same distribution reach as if using LS. The only benefit of LS instead of Ingram Spark is you will have more choice on setting your discounts – but the relative simplicity of using Ingram Spark (I have heard) is likely to make the latter a better choice for you – especially if just starting out. I have also heard that LS is less likely to accept individual author publishers than it did previously.
Reasons to consider Lightning Source UK for self-publishing your book in the UK are:
- You can use it alongside CS’s Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, channels with the same ISBN if you own that ISBN provided you don’t select CS’s Expanded Distribution Channel. Choosing this combination of options means your book will show in stock on Amazon.com and Amazon UK at all times, but at the same time – because you are using LS – it will appear in the data feeds of all the other main online bookstores in the UK and LS will fulfil orders from those websites for you. [Same applies for Ingram Spark.]
- It will also make it available via Ingram’s data feed to the main wholesale UK booksellers who in turn supply the UK retail high street book shops. [Same applies for Ingram Spark.](If you only list on Amazon UK via CreateSpace your book won’t be available to order by the UK bookstores if someone walks in and asks for it. And if you list with Amazon and choose their Expanded Distribution, bookshops will not be receptive to ordering due to the Amazon link.)
- You can also opt to distribute to online bookstores in markets in Australia, the USA, Brazil and Germany at no extra set-up cost. For example, in the USA The Secret Lake and Eeek! are listed on some of the other online bookstores beyond Amazon, such as Barnes & Noble. In short, Lightning Source has print facilities in these countries and can so fulfil orders placed through online stores there. [I assume the same applies for Ingram Spark – but you’ll need to check and I will update this when I’ve had time to do so… probably the least of your worries for now though…]
- It allows you to set your own wholesale discount price – and vary this by country of distribution. If you publish using Lightning Source UK you can choose to offer wholesale discounts of anywhere between 25% and 55% – leaving you a profit of 45-75%. But choose your discount carefully – see next bullet!) [Not the same for Ingram Spark where the discounts choices are limited to 40% or 55% .]
- Bear in mind if using LS that choosing lower-end wholesale discounts will make it unlikely that your book will get chosen by the large UK bookstores as stock. This is because they expect a minimum 35% discount from their suppliers – the latter being the UK wholesalers (such as Gardners, Bertram’s, Baker and Taylor) who in turn buy from Lightning Source. I’ve opted for 45% discount, making an educated guess that this still leaves the retail shop book buyers a potential discount of 30-35% after the wholesaler takes their cut. Within a couple of weeks of launching The Secret Lake, seven branches of Waterstones ordered my book following calls I made to them to introduce them to introduce the book through The Secret Lake website . I doubt those orders would have happened had I opted to receive a higher royalty because Waterstones would have seen that the discount would have been too low – so it really depends on what you marketing aspirations are. See more in the marketing section.
- You can order your own short print runs from LS for delivery to home or anywhere else in the UK – at very reasonable cost. I use these to take into schools and to supply to local bookshops on consignment. There’s a calculator on the front of their website where you can work out the costs If you only use CS ordering large amounts of stock for yourself to supply locally isn’t an option in the UK at least. [You can also order short runs from Ingram Spark – see later section]
However, points to be aware of are:
- Lightning Source doesn’t provide author hand-holding services in the same way that CreateSpace does – rather it offers printing and distribution services to publishers (which include self-publishers, like me). As a result, Lightning Source does not provide step-by-step guidance on self-publishing or any help with formatting questions nor any community forum in the way that CreateSpace does. [I think that Ingram Spark is more helpful for authors here – but can’t say so from experience – at the very least I gather that their upload interface is simpler…]
- You will need to supply your own ISBN (see the section on ISBNs) – but this is no bad thing!
- The set-up costs are a little higher than with CreateSpace and there is a charge each time you alter a file – but these costs are by no means prohibitive. At the time of writing the set-up cost is £42 + VAT to submit a digital interior plus cover file; £7 + VAT per ISBN for an annual catalogue listing with wholesalers; a proof costs £10 + 0.07p per page for a paperback and £13 + 0.07 per page for a hardback + postage. Alterations to files are charged £45 + VAT per hour with a minimum charge of of £22.50 + VAT. The latter seems to cover basic proofing corrections. LS also offers free eProofs for black & white paperback and hardcover as an alternative to the hard copy proof. [Not sure how the Ingram Spark costs compare but I think they may be similar… easy to check]
- If you don’t use CS and only use LS you are likely to experience listing problems on Amazon’s sites- in terms of ‘Out of stock’ messages or delivery times showing of 1-3 weeks, because CS is not fulfilling those orders (but would like to be…). If CS is your distributor on Amazon your title will always shows as being in stock. The same out of stock issue is likely to happen if you only choose to activate one of the Amazon channels. [Same applies if combining CS and Ingram Spark] This is why I recommend you use CS for all Amazon channels and then LS or IS for everything else. If you are reading this and already have out of stock issues try contacting the relevant Amazon team via your Author Account – but prepared to get a standard reply; in the early days they were very helpful, but more recently they tend to refer you back to LS/IS. Here’s where you set up an Amazon UK Author Account
If Lightning Source sounds of potential interest, here’s what they do and don’t provide at the practical level when it comes to file preparation:
- It doesn’t provide interior templates for formatting your book – instead it just provides file size specification guidance. However, I found that my interior files created from CreateSpace’s templates uploaded fine to LS. (This should come as no surprise as the book size was identical!) In short, provided the book sizes are the same, you can use the CS interior templates and guidance to format your files and save them to PDF – and then upload them to Lightning Source. NB Be sure to have embedded your fonts correctly first! I use Doug at Lighthouse24.com to check my PDFs before upload and he usually finds that he has to do the embedding for me as the requirements for this with LS are stricter than with CS. [I can’t comment for Ingram Spark I’m afraid but his should be easy enough to check…..]
- Unsurprisingly, LS doesn’t provide any cover design software akin to CreateSpace’s, so you would need to be using an independent illustrator to design your book cover and he/she will need to follow the LS file creation specifications when saving the file for upload. (These are subtly different from the CS specifications, so you cannot simply use the same files.) [I can’t comment for Ingram Spark I’m afraid but his should be easy enough to check…..]
- It does provide a what it calls a Lightning Source Cover generator – by which I mean a basic template that your illustrator can use with their illustrator package to ensure that your book cover design is correctly sized with images and text positioned within trim lines, the bar code correctly positioned, and so on.
In short, Lightning Source is set up to work with professionals – or self-publishers who can provide print-ready files ready for upload. For this reason I recommend checking out Ingram Spark if you are new to self-publishing.
Top tip on trim size if you’re thinking of using Lightning Source
If you’re thinking of using Lightning Source and are going to prepare your files using CreateSpace templates, make sure you choose a trim size and paper colour that is eligible for CreateSpace’s EDC channels. Why? Because Lightning Source prints most of the EDC channel books for CreateSpace – and the EDC trim sizes are defined to meet Lightning Sources trim size options!
I had to spend a lot of time at the last minute reformatting The Secret Lake from 5.06″ x 7.01″ (the most common size for a children’s book in the UK) to 5.25″ x 8″ – because I suddenly noticed in the small print that EDC – and therefore Lightning Source – will only print the former book size on white paper and not cream. I would never recommend white paper for fiction – because it looks self-published! I’ve sent notes to CreateSpace and Lightning Source suggesting they include 5.06″ x 7.01″ on cream paper due to its being the classic size for a children’s book in the UK – whether they will act on it in due course I have no idea!
The above all said, after have sleepless nights (!) over being forced to choose a few inches/centimetres above the norm, I can assure you that my book does not stand out like a sore thumb in the children’s bookshops due to its size. It looks great!
NB I have not checked the size thing with Ingram Spark but assume it’s the same story…
Launched in July 2013, Ingram Spark is a sister operation to Lightning Source (both are owned by Ingram content). I’ve not had time to review this service yet but read Mick Rooney’s post in the Independent Publishing Magazine here to find out more. It evidently offers a more user-friendly interface than Lightning Source, however you are locked into a 55% or 40% discount, giving you either 45% or 60% royalty. This compares with a 60% royalty for standard distribution with CreateSpace or being able to set your own discount with Lightning Source.
Ingram Spark seems unlikely to be for you if you’re already up and running with LS as you have more flexibility with discounts and the same reach. But if you’re just starting out I think Ingram Spark combined with CS is likely to be the way to go – using the same ISBN and *not selecting CS’s Expanded Distribution Channel* as described earlier.
A couple of useful links on Ingram Spark
Here’s a link to the Ingram Spark print and shipping costs calculator
I have to own up that I don’t know a lot about Lulu.com because I quickly discounted them when I saw that the paper sizes they offered for paperbacks weren’t suitable for children’s fiction. Also, at the time I was doing my research, the cost to use them was more expensive than using CreateSpace and Lightning Source – and I did see this mentioned on quite a few forums and blogs. That said, I also noticed a lot of UK-based authors saying they were successfully using Lulu for their UK sales and CreateSpace for their US sales – so it’s definitely worth checking them out. When I have more time I will update this section to make it more useful for comparison purposes. In the meantime here are a couple of useful links:
Again, I know little about Blurb – again because none of the trim sizes they offered were suitable for the book size I needed. But I do know that it is easy to use and fantastic for making books that contain lots of photographs or illustrations. I have several friends who have used it for photographic books and they have been delighted with the results.
Here is their website link if you want to check it out (use the drop-down at the bottom right of the screen to select your country).